There was an interesting attempt at a discussion on the Anthrodesign mailing list recently as to what online ethnography actually entails. But the discussion never really seemed to get off the ground, and effectively had died by the time I posted my comment. So I thought I put it up here with a few adjustments:
Online ethnography is a very interesting research practice. In part because you are completely dependent on what your informants are willing to show you. You can only learn as much as they put online, and you have no way verifying that what they say is true. As the classic saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
When you’re initiate ethnographic reseach online, you are acutely aware of this fact. No physical context or cues makes it difficult to interpret the actions and motivations of people. The short film “The Parlor” gives a great impression of how these issues.
One ethnography that does well to explore these issues of representation and anonymity is Annette Markham’s “Life Online“. But Markham’s central point is that the net-savvy people that she interviews do not see the Internet as a separate place that they enter when they go online. Rather, “going online means turning on the computer, just as one would pick up the phone.”
Online and in-person are parts of the same domain of social experience. I find that a lot of talk about “virtual ethnography” misses this and instead attempt to explore Internet relationships and behaviour as if they are completely different and unrelated to their informants’ in-person lives.
What I found in my fieldwork is that doing online ethnography is little different from other flavours of ethnography in that you have to examine not just a single aspect of your informants’ lives in order to be able to appreciate their practices and motivations online. This is equally true of everybody else online: Social ties are immensely strengthened by in-person meetings. As Gabriella Coleman has argued, online sociality augments offline sociality, rather than the other way around. In a similar vein, Brigitte Jordan labels this mixing of physical and digital fieldwork “hybrid ethnography” and argues that “the blurring of boundaries and the fusion of the real and the virtual in hybrid settings may require rethinking conventional ethnographic methods in the future.”
I don’t know exactly how ethnographic methods may require rethinking, I can only point to a description of how I combined different research methods, online and in-person in my fieldwork. If you’re curious, you can read my reflections on being in a digital field and my experiences there in my field report [pdf], which I’ve just uploaded for the first time (shame on me for putting it off for so long).
Having said that, I don’t think that online ethnography on its own is without merit. There is plenty of potential to learn from people online from behind the computer screen. But there is one other central issue here: It is incredibly easy to just observe others and not participate online. They can’t see you so there’s no social awkwardness associated with lurking. Not only is it unethical to some extent (just because it’s public doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let people be aware of your presence), but it is also a bad way to do research.
Actively sharing yourself, participating on equal terms is the cornerstone of participant observation, giving you the best possible opportunity to experience what your informants are experiencing. And it is the central way to build trust with people online. Actions do speak louder than words online. Much louder. And it is perfectly possible to do online participant observation. A great example of this is Michael Wesch‘s fascinating study of the Youtube community. Both Wesch and his students shared themselves through videos of their own in a way that garnered both respect and interest in their project. Video is a much more personal and credible way to interact than text online, and it is well worth the time to check out Wesch’s presentation of their study (available on Youtube, of course).
I’d love to hear about others’ experiences doing fieldwork online. So please do share.